OLYMPIA — On one side of an 8-foot-tall chain-link fence Sunday stretched a line of Washington Army National Guard soldiers. They were armed, helmeted and outfitted with face shields that quickly could be lowered to face a threat.
A solitary protester — 66-year-old Navy veteran John Hess from Centralia — stood on the other side of the fence at about noon. He held a sign that declared “Stop the Steal,” and branded President-elect Joe Biden a “traitor, liar, thief.”
The quiet start in Olympia to inauguration week protests may be a lull before more angry days of demonstrations by extremist supporters of President Donald Trump, who on Jan. 6 stunned the nation as they stormed the U.S. Capitol. But the scant turnout here — and in other state capitals — also appears to reflect a new wariness as some call, at least temporarily, for a lower profile amid the massive mobilization of National Guard troops.
“There is a lot of rhetoric online. People do their comments and people yell and scream about how the war is started and the time for talk is over,” said Joey Gibson, founder of the Patriot Prayer group that has organized many rallies around Western Washington, in a Jan. 7 social media post. “Right now, we need to be very cautious in how we move forward.”
Gibson in weeks past has promoted, through his social media accounts, protests and rallies in Salem and Olympia. The only event he now notes for the week is a Tuesday protest over COVID-19 restrictions in Lewis County’s Napavine.
Law enforcement officials in Washington and other states also are scanning social media to anticipate what threats they might face this week as well as the months ahead, when troops are no longer mobilized and the kinds of threats may change.
Passions on the far right could continue to be inflamed during a volatile winter when Trump may be the focal point of an impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate. Law enforcement officials and others who track the far right have said that some of the most militant could opt to move from online chatter about insurrection to trying to plan violent actions against buildings, politicians or other targets.
“‘Our sense is that this [the attack on the U.S. Capitol] has been some sort of page-turning event,” said Chris Loftis, a spokesperson for the Washington State Patrol. “There are substantive divisions in our country that will probably manifest in more security concerns than we have had in the past.”
In Olympia, the massing of National Guard soldiers and State Patrol troopers is a sobering show of force.
The scene Sunday offered a stark contrast to a Jan. 6 statehouse rally when several hundred Trump supporters, some of them armed, assembled in front of the Capitol for a “Stop the Steal” rally. On that day, a few trooper vehicles circled around the perimeter of the rally, but there was no visible uniformed law enforcement on the Capitol steps or lawn where protesters gathered. Only after protesters trespassed on the grounds of the governor’s mansion did State Patrol and other county and city law-enforcement officers respond.
By Jan. 11, as the Legislature briefly convened, the Capitol campus had been closed, and Loftis, in an afternoon briefing with reporters, said “We are already working on a number of very specific threats.”
Since then, Loftis said the FBI has informed the State Patrol that “there are no explicit threats,” but rather specific groups and individuals that are being monitored.
“Our hope is we can get back to some sort of normalcy,” Loftis said.
The current mobilization in Olympia is a costly undertaking to sustain, but it’s still unclear when it will be ramped down. Loftis said it was “another calm day” but the full mobilization will continue at least through Wednesday.
State Patrol troopers drawn from all over the state have been called to stand watch. They are joined by some 600 members of the Washington National Guard, who are staying in hotels or motels. The National Guard is conducting a high number of missions, with 400 members who went this past weekend to Washington, D.C., and another 800 supporting COVID-19 work in the state, according to Karina Shagreen, communication director for the Washington State Military Department.
On Sunday, Hess, the sole protester, ended up being the star attraction for the reporters who gathered by the Capitol campus. He said what occurs next will depend on what happens as Democrats take power.
“If jobs keep getting lost, and people keep getting banned by social media companies,” he said, “you’re going to see something happen. There will be a pushback.”